Challenges of Multicultural Education: Teaching and Taking Diversity Courses
reviewed by Torria Bond - 2006
Title: Challenges of Multicultural Education: Teaching and Taking Diversity Courses
Author(s): Norah Peters-Davis and Jeffrey Shultz
Publisher: Paradigm Publishers, Boulder
ISBN: 1594511063, Pages: 173, Year: 2005
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But I am also motivated by hope, by the belief that social change is possible, that this work, teaching these kinds of courses, is crucial to building the kind of society I want to live in, and that there are, there must be, effective ways to do it. (p. 30)
To those of us who teach diversity courses or dare to integrate multicultural perspectives within our courses, the work of Peters-Davis and Shultz provides much needed validation to the arduousness of presenting differing ideological perspectives on race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and other areas of human difference. Both authors are professors of education at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania, and are engaged in teaching on topics of diversity. Their edited book, Challenges of Multicultural Education: Teaching and Taking Diversity Courses, gives voice to the joys and pains experienced by faculty who teach similar courses and to the students who take these courses. The frustrations and transformations that students and faculty experience are discussed throughout the ten essays, written by multiple authors, which highlight successful pedagogical practices for discussing sensitively salient issues. An elaborate introduction written by Sharon Ravitch, also a professor of education at Arcadia University, provides significant context for those who read the book but are not currently engaged in facilitating discussions on multicultural topics.
Several authors acknowledge the dilemmas involved in teaching pluralistic ideologies that differ substantially from the worldviews with which students enter the course. For example, Acosta, a Latina doctoral student in sociology and an undergraduate diversity course instructor at the University of Nebraska, emphasized the notable predicament of intellectualizing the lived experiences of faculty members from underrepresented groups. As members of a marginalized class, Acosta and colleagues state that faculty members from underrepresented groups endure the challenge of maintaining their credibility as scholars by subjugating the emotions associated with pain, anger, and frustration to intellectualization. Cote, Mann, Mukombe, Nielsen, and Wahl point out that student evaluations are generally lower for multicultural classes in comparison to the evaluation results from content area courses taught by the same professors. Therefore, it is difficult for the professor and the professors evaluators to determine if the lower evaluation is due to pedagogical deficits or from mere discontent with the perspectives presented on the topics of the course. Garcia, Gillem, Szwajkowski, and West additionally note that the duality of having ones identity (i.e., race, ethnicity, gender, class, disability, age, sexual orientation, etc.) as the central focus of a course and being the physical embodiment of the topic of the course forces a somewhat out of body experience to cope with having personal experiences challenged or invalidated, however intentional or unintentional. These classroom dilemmas make identifying successful pedagogical strategies salient.
In spite of these awkward complications, several authors highlight the opportunities to facilitate the personal transformation that each student can begin. Ravitch, in her introduction, suggests that through constructive confrontation and critical interrogation (hooks, 1994, p. 36) professors are entrusted with opportunities to facilitate connections between societys various political agendas and their impact on individuals identities. Acosta and colleagues also highlight the opportunities professors have to make students aware of the non-neutral, very political process of providing and receiving an education. Edwards proposes that even within the academy, students should be guided in a critical analysis of the political agendas that perpetuate biases that privilege some and disadvantage others, as this is the mark of a real education (Freire, 2002). Although the contexts in which multicultural courses are taught remain challenging, it is the opportunity to witness the expanded capacity of students to vicariously place themselves into the perspectives of others in a manner that promotes advocacy that is illuminated by Cohen, Hayes, Inozil, Mendell, and Srivastava in the eighth chapter on Identity Matters in Class: Conversations in Mixed Company. The pedagogical strategies discussed in the book aim to achieve just such a noble purpose.
In order for faculty members to be prepared to engage in this work, Acosta and colleagues allude to the need for institutions of higher education to provide professional development activities and resources that facilitate the understanding of the influence of group and individual identities on the lives of students and faculty. Edwards, also a doctoral student in sociology and an undergraduate diversity course instructor at the University of Nebraska, further states that the presentation of pluralistic perspectives ought not be relegated to one three unit course out of an approximate 120 semester units required for a bachelors degree.
The enormous task of engaging students in critiquing cultural, social, and institutional biases while encouraging critical self-reflection within the conservative heir of the academy is made clear throughout the book. Garcia and colleagues recognize that the content of multicultural courses can not be an impersonal or objective experience for students and that courses such as these are designed to question students identities and their perception of the identities of others. Through the personal essays of students who participate in multicultural courses, the fatigue of having to help others see the world through different eyes is highlighted. Through the same student essays, the reader is given vivid depictions of the personal growth of students on their journey toward genuine self-acceptance, as a gateway toward understanding the experiences and perspectives of others. Through these poignant stories, the reader is led to recognize the personal milestones of students, as several begin to articulate that not all of those who share the same identity think the same or hold the same views.
Professors looking for methods to facilitate similar growth in students on multicultural topics will consider this book a necessity for their professional library. Because many of the authors highlight specific strategies that facilitate the discussion of sensitive issues, professors new to teaching these topics should read it thoroughly. In addition, professors who seek to integrate social justice issues into their courses, which Edwards underscores as everyones responsibility, should also thoroughly read this book. Strategies such as cross-institutional dialogue when the classroom demographics are more homogeneous, shared discussion leading of multicultural anthology selections, and seminar style discussions are among the numerous strategies described in the book. This work, edited by Peters-Davis and Shultz, is not a detailed "how to" book on teaching diversity courses. Individual and group identities that make up the classroom composition and the awareness of the individuals who hold those identities make classroom dynamics unpredictable and defy formulas. However, the numerous strategies that the authors describe will fill any professors cup until it overflows, providing general direction and warning signs about the hazards that may be encountered along the way.
According to several authors, the personal transformation that is sought is a process that will not be completed within a semester course. Ravitch, Roeser, and Girard remind professors engaged in multicultural education that learning is not necessarily linear or immediate, that true learning happens . . . with incremental changes over a period of time (p. 135). The book helps professors of such courses become clear about their objectives and what can be obtained within a semester.
Professors, who teach these courses repeatedly are never the same individuals that begin the course no matter how many times it is taught. This is especially true if one heeds the advice and recommendations offered by the authors. Through the authors own classroom stories, the reader becomes sensitively aware of the anxiety endured as students struggle to understand their own identities and the impact these identities have on others. For practitioners engaged in multicultural work, Peters-Davis and Shultzs collaborative work offers strategies that, if implemented in classrooms across all disciplines, have the potential for fostering cross-cultural dialogue, mutual respect, and understanding across the educational community. It is clear that dialogue about these topics must be ongoing until weas individuals, professors, and overseers of content within our disciplineare able to discuss them with ease, without blame or victimization. When we can do this, we can facilitate personal growth on these issues within each other. That specifically is why this book is so insightful and necessary for my colleagues in all disciplines of the academy to read.
Freire, P. (2002). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.